In Buddhist temples, people bow all the time. A traditional and very common practice is to bow three times, once for the Buddha (the man), once for the dharma (the teachings) and once for the sanga (the community). We call this the triple gems but I’m not sure what’s so sparkly about my hands and knees on the ground all the time.
We bow when we greet each other; it’s a sign of mutual respect I guess, an acknowledgment that we somehow abide by the same code of conduct, that we walk the same path. Or maybe its habit, maybe sometimes we bow because we’ve always bowed and everyone bows and now it’s just a mindless, intentionless movement. I suspect it’s both, give or take, at various moments.
We bow when we leave each other, a way of wishing each other well, an acknowledgement and blessing of a safe journey. Or again, we do it because everyone always has and again I suspect it’s both, depending.
We especially bow to the monastics. To walk on the street in a Buddhist community like Burma or Sri Lanka or Thailand can be an awkward experience and a city block can take a while if monks happen to be around. If we had to do full prostrations, we’d never get anywhere so we’ve all sorta modified the bow to a 21st century thing, I guess I’d call it bowing 2.0. I quickly discovered I can bow with a single hand as to not spill my coffee, I can bow while on the phone and even while texting. Is my intention as pure when I do this, am I humbling myself and giving reverence to the monk? Probably not. At least not as much as I could be.
The bow confuses people new to this experience, they wonder why we’re giving such reverence to these monks and the truth behind the bow is that its not about the monastics so much, it’s actually a bow to the robes they are wearing. I suppose if it’s a monk I know, one I might refer to as my teacher or who is from my temple, then I am bowing in appreciation, love and respect to the person, but mostly, to the average everyday monks, I’m bowing to the robes… the lineage of commitment, steadfast practice and spiritual devotion the robes stand for. The monk’s robes are sacred, they represent this commitment to a holy life, a commitment to use as little as possible, and to only take what you need, to serve others by any means possible and to remain humble and unassuming.
Really, the robes are this declaration of a vow and commitment to live a simple and sacred life and they are a announcement to all who see them that the person in the robes is living a dedicated holy life, that they are safe, ready to serve and willing to help.
When we bow, we’re saying I see the commitment you’ve made to serve humanity and I’m grateful. We’re saying, may all the merits of good virtue be transferred to you for the selfless service you’ve committed your life to.
The three bows, bowing the “triple Gem” as we like to call it is mostly reserved for the Buddha himself… statues, a painting, figures or even a imaginary image. I’ve bowed my fair share of triple gems when no image of the Buddha was in site. Why? Because its important to us to give thanks to the man and his wisdom teachings that’s made me and this world better and the community of people who have made it their strong determination to practice these principles in all their affairs… my noble friends, the folks who surround me and love me and keep me going.
When we bow, we’re acknowledging the history of good intentional acts of humanity, and mostly, above all else, we bow to surrender, to remember how insignificant we are and to practice complete humility.